On my 21st birthday, I spoke on a Sex Week panel called “Race and Relationships.” Oversharing to an audience of strangers fit seamlessly into the celebrations — it was the holy grail of an activity, one that would allow me to channel my affinity for silly exhibitionism into something actually meaningful. My friend was moderating the panel, and together, we pranced from brunch at Blue Bottle to Boylston Hall. We were excited to commune with peers who were similarly submerged in the muddy waters of desirability politics. Perhaps narcissistically, we were also excited that the takes we’d developed while procrastinating might finally have a broader audience.
My friend’s first question cut straight to the point: “Have you ever felt fetishized?”
For me, the answer was yes, but. Yes, but sometimes it’s more of a rumor than fact. Yes, but the associated shame often derives more from what being fetishized signifies socially than from the fetishization itself. Yes, but the feeling can vary drastically from instance to instance, in gravity or urgency, and popular discourse doesn’t offer a space to explore that unevenness.
But the first answer made me wonder if my planned bid for nuance was a thinly veiled admission of weakness. A panelist responded to the prompt with: “I’ve never personally been fetishized because I don’t allow that to happen to me. I kind of have an aura that prevents it.”
Suddenly, at a forum intended to inspire honesty and empathy, I was grateful that the mic would pass through a few more people before it got to me. I didn’t want to be the first to admit that I gave off a different, more penetrable, more fetishizable aura. Answering “yes” to being fetishized transformed from a moment of vulnerability to a deflection of responsibility. And when I said it, I had the disheartening realization that I was embarrassed.
The night before the panel, I’d done some reflecting on anecdotes from my young adulthood, mining them for commentary beyond the idea of racial preferences as simply being harmful. Over the years, I — like most women of color — had accumulated a small but nagging reservoir of romantic and sexual experiences that seemed racialized. A few were so on the nose that they felt like caricatures.
When I was newly 18, still tentatively, shakily stepping into my sexuality, a guy reassured me after our botched attempt at a one-night stand: It’s okay; it’s always harder for Asian girls at first, but don’t worry, that means it’s better in the long run.
Even then, I knew his assertion was ridiculous. My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing over the implication that he must’ve taken the virginity of every Asian girl in the world in order to understand their anatomy so perfectly. He fell, without a doubt, into the camp of men who hold damaging ideas about Asian women and who should therefore be blacklisted from the pool of viable hookup options.
Stories like these abound — in online think pieces about the dangers of “yellow fever,” in critiques of films that unabashedly cast Asian women as dragon ladies or lotus blossoms, in historical analyses of how the Opium Wars birthed the mythology of tight Asian vaginas. These stories are old news by now. We all know that Asian women are fetishized interpersonally and culturally, and we know that it is bad.
On a liberal college campus, racial fetishization is as ubiquitous as it is universally maligned. News of yellow fever is nothing more than gossip — or, if you run into an acquaintance at a party and she shouts over the music to tell you who she’s hooking up with, a bit of bad news to deliver with the appropriate amount of pity and a dash of cringe. It’s rarely the subject of prolonged discussion. What is there to say? If the historical roots and cultural persistence of fetishization are obvious, the prescription for when it happens is even more so. Being fetishized is blatant and offensive. Its possibility lurks in every first kiss, every nervous butterfly, and every midnight booty call. Its subjects, then, should steel their auras against it.
But as I reflected on my own relationship to racial fetishization, I discovered that it was overwhelmingly forged through ambiguity: ambiguous interactions, ambiguous responses, and ambiguous feelings. The instances that prompted my immediate, visceral disgust felt secondary to the instances that left me uncertain, on the precipice of being shoved into a tired cultural script but clinging to the hope that I’d hold my ground.
Once, a friend brought up that a guy I’d been seeing had a reputation for yellow fever. She joked, “Time for you to put that one to bed!” A clear solution to a clear infraction. Her tone carried a loaded yikes, the accusation that I had, indeed, heard this before and hadn’t yet put it to bed after all. She was right, and in the group setting we were in, I flushed with shame. It felt like the wrong time to divulge that I’d agonized over the rumors for months.
As far as I could tell, these were the facts: He’d hooked up with a few Asian women, but also a few more non-Asian women. The mere presence of Asian women mixed into someone’s dating history — the incriminating evidence that my friends had pointed to — didn’t register as a cause for concern in itself. I wanted to be cautious and discerning. Still, some of the warnings seemed to pulse with an almost smug incredulity — disbelief that Asian women could unproblematically be subjects of desire. It was like a paranoia towards racial fetishes had led to the collective internalization of the assumptions that undergird them. Because we’re aware of Orientalism’s deep and expansive roots, desire for Asian women is difficult to imagine as untainted by fantasies of sexual submissiveness, exoticism, or danger. I’ve fought the urge to insist, No, why can’t you imagine that he just likes me because he thinks I’m hot? The irony, of course, is that I’d probably want to say those same words to a guy with yellow fever. Why can’t you just like me because you think I’m hot?
Being fetishized can feel like the invalidation of your desirability: You’re chosen on the basis of stereotypes associated with your race, not your unique individual assets. What’s less acknowledged is that the constant projection of fetishization onto your body can feel like that, too.
This is what my ideal self would’ve said back then, to my friend or on the panel. But the line between merited inquiry and making excuses is razor-thin; I’m still trying to walk it. Obviously, I don’t want to defend racial fetishization as okay, but I’m not very concerned with the act of fetishizing at all. Instead, I want to explore the embodiment of being racially fetishized — one that may be more capacious than the focus on subjugation and demands for personal defensiveness allow for.
For my senior thesis, I’ve interviewed 20 women who make their livelihoods through inhabiting this embodiment. The work of Asian woman porn performers articulates the linkage of Asian femininity and sexual desire more explicitly, more vividly, than would be acceptable in any other form of media. Arguably, they don’t just articulate it. They amplify and reinforce it. From deploying Asian-related keywords to wearing ethnic garb, many of these women solicit an experience that others condemn as a primary source of violence. Being fetishized emerges as a powerful means toward capital.
Still, despite all my pontificating on ambiguities, the act of browsing PornHub’s Asian category feels unambiguously alienating. I wince at the unabashed invocation of stereotypes and slurs, at the use of the adjective “Asian” as a signifier of eroticism. If I was disgusted by the Asian virginity expert who alluded to tight Asian vaginas, how do I write about women who market themselves through “Asian pussy”?
Taking my interlocutors’ self-articulations seriously, then, has required that I resist the impulse to resent them for validating power dynamics that nauseate me. It’s an exercise in looking at instances of racial fetishization that appear the least ambiguous, the most plainly victimizing, and excavating what might be invisibly complex about them. The women’s narratives often brim with a bristling awareness of these complexities. Most of them know that the visual fact of their undulating bodies carries social significance, regardless of whether they lean into their Asian-ness or not. Some of them feel guilt, some feel uncertainty, some feel indignance, and some feel empowered to capitalize on a part of them that would likely be fetishized anyway. Many feel a tangle of these emotions at once.
These conversations have forced me to consider being fetishized as a messy, lived-in thing, irreducible to a single axis of value or harm. For Asian woman porn performers, it brings discomfort but also money; frustration but also reclamation.
When I was little, I wished that I was white. I valorized Eurocentric beauty standards and believed that the coveted status of crushed-upon was reserved only for those who met them. But at some point, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and stayed there. Still kneeling at the altar of vanity, I became supremely glad that I was Asian.
Maybe it was around the beginning of college when I found myself in a more diverse and social friend group than I’d ever been in. We were obsessed with the obnoxious idea that we could be hot girls who went to Harvard. Leaning into this required that we were confident in our desirability, individually and together — or at least, that we told ourselves we were. Over time, my confidence settled; it grew less exaggerated and less performative. Certain mindsets naturalized from aspirational to real: I felt uniquely not insecure relative to white women. White beauty standards were unappealing to me. I loved how I looked, and I loved being Asian. Those two things weren’t causal but inextricable. I didn’t love how I looked because I was Asian, but obviously being Asian had something to do with it. Many women of color I know can identify this precise boomerang in their own self-esteem.
Only recently have I considered the specifics of what it means to revel in my Asian-ness as beautiful. Iterations of this self-love mantra are common and uncontroversial, a defiant response to the hegemony of whiteness. These days, thank God, I think that the features I would’ve chosen to swap out as a kid are better than the ones I yearned for. I find pleasure, power, satisfaction in my almond eyes and small stature, my dark hair and tan skin.
That last sentence, I’ve realized, must have always been implicit in the kind of racialized confidence that’s buoyed me throughout college. But to write it out is jarring. Frankly, it echoes the ramblings of a racist guy with yellow fever posting to a scary Reddit thread. If a sexual partner were to ever mention those traits, I would be horrified.
And yet, the sentence remains true for me. I look in the mirror; I see an Asian girl; I think that’s hot.
This, I suspect, is one of the trickiest parts of desire. We want our sexualities to be pure. Any association of race with sexuality is immediately tainting, pathologizing — and much of the time, it should be. But if attraction is, in many cases, based on appearances — making eye contact across a bar, swiping on Hinge — then it’s also difficult to separate from race entirely. What someone looks like, and what makes them attractive, inherently includes race.
In my sophomore year, an Asian friend and I betrayed this to be our worldview without knowing we held it. We noticed that the guys who were into her had a monolithically different vibe than the guys who were into me. So half bitsy, half serious, we developed what we called our “Oriental question.” We wondered whether we embodied our respective Asian-ness differently, and whether that might explain the phenomenon. Maybe one of us was Asian in a sultry way, whereas the other was more of a bubbly Asian, we hypothesized. We asked for input from several acquaintances that we certainly were not close enough to ask.
For the purpose of this bit, Asian-ness was the locus of interrogation — not personality, not style. These factors only played a role insofar as they contributed to our speculatively distinct veins of Asian. Race, in other words, felt like a constitutive aspect of our desirability. It shaped how we conceived of boys conceiving of us — and, necessarily, how we conceived of ourselves in relation to them. The “Oriental question,” then, could easily be characterized by an outsider as an outgrowth of defeated acceptance.
But honestly, we found it all hilarious. We were fascinated and amused and occasionally flattered by people’s answers. The instinctive relationship we grasped between our Asian-ness and our desirability was the object of curiosity, even fun — even pleasure, in the most lighthearted and frivolous sense.
“I love sexy Asian women gyrating in bikinis on stage in Miss Saigon,” writes Celine Shimizu in the opening of her book, "The Hypersexuality of Race." “I love Asian women porn stars delivering silly lines in broken English while performing in dragon lady fingernails, long black wigs, and garish yellowface makeup that exaggerates slanted eyes.”
Shimizu is one of the only scholars to theorize the subjectivities of Asian women in pornographic films. Her book explores sexualized portrayals of Asian women through the analytic framework of “race-positive sexuality” — a way of understanding of the entanglement of race, sex, and representation that accounts for “their subjugating power but also the possibilities of their equally intense pleasure.”
That last part — the insistence on pleasure — is where Shimizu stakes her intervention in the literature. She claims that in spite of its historically violent origins, racialized sexuality can be a site of self-authored desire for Asian women, found in its performance or its consumption. Recognizing the potential for counterintuitive pleasure, she continues, allows us to recognize Asian women’s sexualities as vehicles for “powerful social critique.” It’s a kind of politicization that can only occur when we discard the “moralistic” lenses of racialized sexuality as pain, or pleasure in racialized sexuality as false consciousness.
I’m not sure that I agree with the extent to which Shimizu ascribes pleasure with political meaning — and especially the extent to which she casts Asian women’s bodies as laboratories for revolutionary sexual subjectivities. This is a decidedly non-academic gripe, more so a visceral, personal sense of indignance. I don’t want my sexuality to be socially meaningful or my pleasure to be politically important. That feels so laborious. I just want that particular part of life to be fun. I actively would not defend the Oriental question, or continuing to see the guy who may or may not have had yellow fever, or reveling in the Asian-ness of my sexuality as having anything to contribute to transformative sexual politics.
Still, Shimizu’s work gestures toward a truth that rarely feels kosher to explore beneath the dominant perspectives on racial fetishization. Race is always already formative in Asian women’s sexualities; sexuality, in turn, is “part of Asian American women’s everyday identities and subject formation,” she writes.
If all of this is true — and I’d wager that it is — then the relationship between race, sexuality, and desire can’t be solely constituted by shame. Instead, pleasure might exist there. There might be confusion, or ambivalence, or a fed-up refusal to think about any of this stuff.
In every thesis interview, I asked the performer how she grapples with the racial fetishization inherent to her job. One performer, who once made a video instructing viewers on how to fuck a pumpkin, responded, “Why can’t I just be in my body and have fun making silly pumpkin-fucking videos, without all of this other significance tied to me enjoying myself, enjoying my body?”
Sometimes, it seems like there are only two options: to be on guard against the diffuse creep of fetishization, or to accept your place within a depressing, centuries-long legacy of fetishized Asian women. But her question rejects a sexuality defined by the fantasies of Orientalism; it also rejects a sexuality defined by victimhood, paranoia, and the moral imperative to internalize both. She doesn’t insist on an external utility to her onscreen performances. In fact, she seems to hate it, “all of this other significance” — the consideration of her body as a political object that might give off some racially questionable aura, rather than a vessel for enjoyment that belongs to her alone.
Or maybe that’s me projecting. I wrote her quote down immediately — not in my thesis notes document, but in a random note on my phone titled “RELATABLE.” I exclaimed in agreement and thanked her for saying it. Because I, too, often just want to be in my body — a body that is most certainly Asian — and enjoy the pure embodied feeling of its desirability, guiltlessly and uninhibitedly, without explaining that to anyone at all.
— Magazine writer Elyse D. Pham can be reached at email@example.com.